(Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash)
It started when I was still in college.
Some nights, I’d have trouble sleeping — laying in bed, my stomach would clench and twist and I’d be convinced I had to throw up. I’d hop out of bed and start pacing my room, or start playing a card game on my computer or phone, and sometimes both. Slowly, focused on the game or the walking and not my panicked brain screaming at me that something was wrong, I’d calm down.
Sometimes it took 20 minutes. Sometimes it took four hours. For a few years, I didn’t even try to sleep in my own bed. I’d head straight to the couch at bed time, where I’d do jigsaw puzzles on my iPad until I couldn’t keep my eyes open, TV blaring in the background.
Anxiety looks different for everyone. For me, the more out of control I feel in my day to day, the more likely I am to have my version of a panic attack — unable to sleep, gripped by panic that I’m going to throw up despite the fact that in 10 years, I have never once thrown up. My panic-addled brain can’t process that logical piece of information in the moment, it’s too focused on whatever repetitive negative thoughts I’ve got going on that day that drown out everything else.
It took years, but I finally went to therapy. Mostly because it began to affect more than just me when I was home alone at night. I was having panic attacks when I was out in the world — going dancing with my friends, going to concerts, attending family birthday parties, running an event at work — all things I love to do.
A nonprofit I used to work for does an annual Casino Night fundraiser, and I had worked on it from the very beginning. In year four or so, I spent at least 30 minutes in the bathroom throughout the night trying to pull myself together because I was straight up panicking. There were no problems -— the event was going more smoothly than ever. It was all in my head. That was about the time I realized I couldn’t live like this anymore.
My biggest takeaway from therapy was that I’ve been doing this to myself the whole time. I don’t have a medical condition that causes my stomach to be unpredictable and upset several nights a week, and I didn’t need to see a medical doctor for treatment. I have a brain that developed some very unhealthy coping mechanisms for stress.
When it boils down to it, it all stems from control. I want to be in control of everything, all the time, with a clear plan and assignment of tasks, and lots of predictability. And that’s just not how life works. Life is messy.
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Learning how to watch for triggers and deconstruct those unhealthy habits has made a world of difference, but it’s a process — it took years to become the me that I am today. Now, I know that when I start having vivid and stressful dreams that I am cruising towards unhealthy stress (like the one where I hosted a fundraiser and all the staff showed up, but the guests did not, and everyone kept following me around asking “what can I do?” which was moot because until guests arrived, we couldn’t do anything and we were stuck in this version of hell for what felt like eight hours). It took days to shake off the residual tension.
I’ve also learned how to disrupt the cycle of physical symptoms and negative thoughts if I do end up there, so it usually doesn’t turn into a four-hour endeavor.
If you know me in real life, you’ll know that I’m not shy about talking about my anxiety issues — or anything really, I’m a chronic over-sharer. But, talking about anxiety specifically has been really, really helpful for me.
First, because it helped me discover that I’m not the only one with these issues. Being stuck in your own head so much can be incredibly isolating. Many more friends than I thought have had similar struggles, and I am always delighted to realize that I can share my experience with someone who really gets it.
It’s so validating to be seen and understood in that way. I’ll never forget visiting a friend in Dallas who correctly anticipated everything about the visit that would make me anxious and prepared accordingly; it was such a huge relief to know as soon as I arrived that I was in a safe and understanding space and I had an absolute blast on that trip.
Second, because it has helped my friends and family unfamiliar with anxiety understand me, what makes me tick, and how they can help me (which, lucky for them, is easy — stay away from me until I calm down). My family especially doesn’t have much experience with mental health challenges, and it’s so nice to be able to tell them I’m having a bad night and know that I don’t need to explain it further than that. They may not be able to put themselves in my shoes, but they are understanding and caring, and that means a lot.
Especially now, with the pandemic still happening and many people learning how to cope with a new daily routine and a whole lot of unknown about the future, I’m seeing a lot of folks whose anxiety is flaring up. Or, folks who never dealt with it before are now starting to see symptoms and don’t quite know how to name them or what to do with them.
I’ve struggled a bit during the shutdown — less than I expected, if we’re being completely honest, but struggled all the same. I had two bad nights, and both times I was so tired and stressed that I gave in and told myself that if I needed to revert to old habits and pace around the house until I was tired enough to sleep, then that’s what I have to do. In the moment, it was comforting to fall into an old habit.
The next morning, however, I was racked with guilt. Shouldn’t I be stronger than this? Shouldn’t I have been able to power through? Am I sliding backwards in my recovery?
The answer, of course, is no. We’re in unprecedented times. No one knows what next week will bring, let alone next month or next year. It’s okay to see more symptoms, and it’s also okay to indulge in what brings you comfort, even if you know that long-term it’s not a healthy solution.
Of course, knowing all this doesn’t mean that I still don’t beat myself up over it or feel guilty for not being better at managing my stress. I sure do. And I know I’m not the only one.
So, for all of you out there struggling: I see you. You’re not weak, you’re not less than, and I support you in doing whatever brings you comfort in this time of great stress and uncertainty. Be kind to yourself, especially right now. We got this.
Editor’s note: If you are struggling, here are 7 science-based strategies to cope with coronavirus anxiety, as well as our 2018 Mental health guide: Where to get therapy on a sliding scale in Philadelphia.
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